Warning: There may be fringe spoilers ahead, but I will try my best not to reveal too much.
Thursday night, I came home from work around 9pm with no expectations for the evening. I figured the evening would consist of a YouTube binge as background noise, while I anxiously scrolled through every available social media app on my phone. On an impulse I opened the HBO Max app...and there it was: The Suicide Squad. Ready to go and ready to watch. Thus began my initial viewing of James Gunn’s symphony of bloodshed that subverted any and all expectations I had going in. Now, three days and three viewings later, I’m here to proclaim the brilliance of this film from the mountaintop of DCEU haters. Following a team of supervillains from the perspective of the creative mind behind Super (2010), The Suicide Squad is equal parts heart and gore that amounts to the best film I’ve seen this year (sorry, Snyder Cut).
The Suicide Squad drops you into the action immediately. We follow the squad as they’re dropped on the shore of Corto Maltese, a fictional island nation created by Frank Miller for The Dark Knight Returns. This is followed by a sideshow of brutality that had me gagging and laughing in the same beat. Characters new and old suffer rapid fire death in the most hilarious of ways, that is capped off with a jump back in time to deliver some exposition. After a violent coup in Corto Maltese, the new regime inherits an extraterrestrial being that complements their virulent anti-American attitude. Naturally, Amanda Waller sees this as a threat, and sends Task Force X to infiltrate the island and destroy the facility housing the alien. You know the rest: bombs in the head, teamwork fails, violence.
I hate to say it, but this film seems to be an apology for Warner Bros.’ original attempt. I won’t blame Ayer (a whole other conversation), but it seems Gunn was given free reign. Rather than blatantly highlighting “main” characters, Gunn heaps multiple B- to C-list villains onto an island, where we have to play a mortality-themed game of Guess Who. Of course, there is a main team essentially, though even they aren’t safe from a stray starfish arm. The original Suicide Squad was not shy about letting the audience know who would live and who would die from the get-go, while the absolute “main” characters (Deadshot & Harley) were given extensive backstories and emotional beats as if the audience needed to be herded into having specific character opinions. Gunn’s approach was different. Each character is unique, and benefits from Gunn’s confidence in his audience. A guy who throws polka dots? No questions asked. A demigod shark-man? Good to go. A guy who can detach his arms? Well...weird...but still amazing. This is a comic book movie that is aware of what it is. The first ten minutes alone introduce us to a menagerie of characters shrouded in years of comics ambiguity, yet there is no handholding in terms of spoon-feeding you outlandish backstory exposition. None of it matters unless it benefits the plot. This is tight storytelling at its best. It also succeeds in making us care about these ne'er-do-wells.
The character work alone makes this film fun. Brilliant cinematography and writing gives us Ratcatcher 2’s simple history (it does matter in terms of her motivations), a history that had me tearing up. King Shark stole my heart just as often as he made me nauseous with his grotesque habit of scarfing down whole people. Bloodsport and Peacemaker spend the whole runtime measuring firearms (you get what I’m sayin’), while also showing distinct and individual motivations for their actions. Harley is Harley, that being spectacularly fantabulous. Polka Dot Man, a character who shouldn’t even work, rocked my world with his superpowered Oedipal complex (you’ll see). Obviously I’m leaving many other characters out and I have my reasons for that, so I guess you’ll just have to watch the movie.
The Suicide Squad takes full advantage of the tonal shift in the DCEU that was initiated by Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey. Turning its back on the muted colors and the gritty, down-to-earth Snyder approach, the DCEU has markedly shifted to a more comics-esque stylistic tone. Not only is The Suicide Squad rife with bright hues and pop art violence, it revels in these things. Gunn seemed to find commonalities between the comics and cinematic forms, bringing us chapter cards throughout the film that act as part of the setting. These definitely reflect the comics splash pages that introduce new times and locations, while keeping the reader up to speed on what characters are doing. Frequent time jumps give us separate character storylines that happen concurrently, while building to a climax where everything comes together. This is how Gunn manages to make so much happen in a short amount of time. This technique also screams homage to the temporal and spatial relationship that comic panels create to achieve similar effects. I saw a lot of John Ostrander’s run of Suicide Squad comics in this film. Ostrander utilized cinematic techniques in his writing, similar to how Gunn does the reverse. Rather than committing to a splash page with all the creative credits (per usual), Ostrander littered each panel with one credit, much like how credits roll on screen as the opening scenes play out behind them. This keeps the action moving while giving credit where it's due. I saw the same stylistic uniqueness in The Suicide Squad as I did in Ostrander’s books.
I could rave about this film for pages, but I won’t. The truth is, I needed this film. I needed to feel justified in my continual return to the DCEU. I will argue the merits of BvS, Man of Steel, JL Snyder Cut, etc., until I’m blue in the face. I won’t need to do that with The Suicide Squad, just like I feel I don’t need to with Birds of Prey. A new wind is blowing, and I feel the DCEU is finally being put in the right hands. I have my issues with The Suicide Squad, of course. Starro starts bustin’ up a country, yet Superman can’t do a quick fly by? Didn’t Bruce Wayne tell Amanda Waller to shut down Task Force X, or he’d do it for her? Did Barry Allen not catch the news and pop over two seconds later? These are meager, nit-picky arguments but ones I feel could’ve been addressed with throwaway lines. However, I also have to admit that the state of the current DCEU doesn’t much allow for this level of connection...yet.
Check this film out on HBO Max or in theaters (if you feel comfortable doing so). If you want to do a little background reading beforehand, check out John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad: Trial by Fire from your Local Comic Shop or Amazon!
Suicide Squad: Trial By Fire
Super (2010) A dark comedy superhero film by James Gunn